Author’s note: This article contains a thorough discussion including spoilers of all versions of The Shining and Doctor Sleep.
With a body of work as vast as Stephen King’s, it is nearly impossible to choose a “best” or “greatest” piece. The favorite among Constant Readers, as King calls his fans, seems to be The Stand (1978). King has often cited It (1986) as his best work. Many others would name ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), The Dead Zone (1979), Pet Sematary (1983), The Dark Tower series (1982–2004), or even the recent 11/22/63 (2011) as worthy of consideration. But for my money, his greatest work is The Shining (1977). It is his breakthrough novel, massively influential in the horror genre, and his most deeply personal confession — though even King himself didn’t realize that for many years. The major iterations of The Shining: the original novel, Stanley Kubrick’s film, the ABC mini-series written by King and directed by Mick Garris, and Mike Flanagan’s film adaptation of Doctor Sleep (2019), all share one pivotal moment in common — the bar scene. It is a moment grounded in the reality of the time and the place King first conceived the story. It is the key scene in each version that the entire story hinges on and echoes in the halls of ages past and perhaps on into those that lie ahead.
After two successful novels set in his home state of Maine, Stephen King was looking for a change of scenery. So, for what turned out to be a very short season of life, King and family made their way to Boulder, Colorado. While there, a friend encouraged King and his wife Tabitha to stay at the Rocky Mountain bound Stanley Hotel. When they arrived, they found the hotel nearly deserted as it was about to close for the winter season. After dinner in the empty dining room, Tabitha headed back to their room while King wandered the labyrinthine halls and found his way to the bar where he was served drinks by a man named Grady. As he sat before the mirrored wall of the bar, the story that would become The Shining came to him like a quick, fiery shot of hard liquor.
After a few drinks, he joined his wife in the hotel’s supposedly haunted Room 217. “That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors,” King later recalled. “He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”
The bar scene of the novel is a dark, fictionalized reflection of King’s real-life experience. Jack Torrance is very much a shadow of King himself and his own, then-unadmitted fears. During this time, King was a “wet,” though functional, alcoholic, a habit that at its height would see him “drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night.” Like Jack, he would pop Excedrin “like jelly-beans,” as Playboy’s Eric Norden observed during a 1983 interview with the author, to stave off debilitating stress headaches. And like Jack, he was clearly afraid of what he might do to his wife and young children if he did not get his demons under control.
I imagine King sitting in the bar of the Stanley Hotel, staring at his reflection in the mirrored wall, glass of Jack in his hand, and the force of every drink behind and the thousands ahead hitting like a Mack truck, but at the same time, the denial of his functioning alcoholic’s mind is numbing the blow and transforming it from remorse to inspiration. This inspiration happened to collide with a short story idea he had abandoned several years earlier about a psychic child called “Darkshine” and, as often happened with King, “Pow, two unrelated ideas…came together, and I had an idea.” As mentioned before, the novel is also a powerful personal confession and not just about his as-of-yet unadmitted alcoholism.
“Sometimes you confess. You always hide what you’re confessing to. That’s one of the reasons why you make up the story…as a young father with two children, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children. Won’t you ever stop? Won’t you ever go to bed? And time has given me the idea that probably there are a lot of young fathers and young mothers both who feel very angry, who have angry feelings toward their children…I was really sort of sickened by my own feelings when I would think to myself, ‘Oh, if he doesn’t shut up, if he doesn’t shut up…’”
This is heavy stuff — the fear that the thought “oh I could just kill him” could actually come to fruition. King went on to say, “Yes, there are times when I felt very angry toward my children and have even felt as though I could hurt them.” The first half of the novel sets up this confession; the bar scene is where the novel begins to knock it down.
In the book, the scene takes place right about the halfway point. It is just after Danny has gone into room 217 and encountered the horrifying apparition in the bathtub (incidentally, this scene takes place on page 217 of the original hardcover novel). After being accused by his wife Wendy of causing the boy’s injuries, Jack finds himself pulling up a stool to the empty hotel bar (a scene that incidentally begins on page 237 of the novel — an interesting coincidence considering Kubrick’s film and the famous changing of the Room number to that specific number. It is pure speculation on my part, but perhaps the change is nothing more than an indication of how important Kubrick felt this scene was). As Jack sits at the bar, he asked for twenty martinis — Martians as his friend Al Shockley used to call them — one for “every month I’ve been on the wagon and one to grow on.” He goes on to discuss with the bartender, Lloyd, who does not speak for himself in the scene, what it is really like to be on the wagon. How it is inviting at first but turns out to be “a church with bars on the windows, a church for women, and a prison for you.” He looks up to realize that Lloyd is not there, had never been there, nor had the drinks. Still, he gets the feeling that he is not alone, that there are people in the booths behind him, looking his way and laughing. It is his first real taste of the Overlook’s trickery. It is barely a whispered whiff of the forbidden fruit that he will ultimately partake in.
In 1978, Stanley Kubrick began desperately searching for a new project. Barry Lyndon (1975) had been an artistic triumph but not a financial success. He turned his sights toward making a more commercial film. As legend has it, he requested a large pile of bestsellers that had not yet been optioned and holed himself up in his office. He would grab a book from the stack, read a few pages, and then hurl it against the wall if it didn’t grab his interest. An assistant at the time describes hearing the thud of a book hitting the wall every few minutes for hours. When the thudding stopped, she ventured into Kubrick’s office and found him engrossed in Stephen King’s The Shining.
Kubrick’s later period, which essentially lasted from 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 to Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, is defined by a decidedly distant and icy aesthetic. He was not interested in realism of performance from his actors, but what he found interesting instead was driving his actors to be completely spent emotionally. He would often subject them to dozens, even hundreds of takes until they simply had nothing left but raw, cold instinct or exhaustion but little or no emotion. This aesthetic is in direct contrast to King’s style as a writer. His characters pulse with vitality and passion. Often, characters that have only a passing impact on the story are described in intimate detail. Kubrick’s characters, particularly starting with 2001 onward, tend to be dispassionate and known only obliquely. Hitchcock was often accused of treating actors like cattle; Kubrick often treated them like poseable figures in his dollhouse.
Still, the first bar scene is the pivotal scene of Kubrick’s movie. It happens in almost the exact spot as the book and begins almost exactly as King wrote it. It veers away when Jack begins to discuss his family with Lloyd, especially about Wendy. There is real venom dripping from his tongue in these moments. He tells Lloyd about the moment that still haunts him: when he dislocated Danny’s shoulder three years earlier while drunk. In the U.S. cut, we as an audience have already heard this story from Wendy as she tells it to a doctor in an earlier scene. In the shorter European cut, the bar scene is the first revelation of this fact.
The scene is Jack truly giving in and eating freely of the forbidden fruit (in this case, Jack Daniels) and openly confessing how he really feels about his family. Here, Jack is the Biblical Adam taking his fateful bite, and like that archetypical first man, he blames his wife for driving him to it. The difference between the novel and film here is that Kubrick and Nicholson’s version of Jack Torrance lends no resistance. From the very start of the film, he is willing, even looking for an excuse, to give in to his demons. He practically relishes in the idea of living out the nightmare he wakes up from of chopping Wendy and Danny up into tiny pieces a few scenes previous.
Even before the film’s released, Stephen King seemed predisposed to disliking it. In interviews he gave in 1979, he expressed concern about casting and Kubrick’s sensibilities for the story. He later revealed “Kubrick is a very cold man — pragmatic and rational — and he had great difficulty conceiving, even academically, of a supernatural world…a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel. So, he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones.” Over the years, King has been asked about the film an uncountable number of times but has distilled his answer to a few thoughts. In a 2011 interview with Turner Classic Movies, he gives the answers that he most typically shares:
“I saw these as warm characters, characters that were being threatened by forces from without…Stanley Kubrick saw the haunting as coming from Jack Torrance…in my novel the hotel burns, in Kubrick’s movie the hotel freezes. It’s the difference between warmth and cold. But the images are striking, no doubt about it…but to me, that’s surface and not substance. So, I used to describe The Shining, the film, as something like a beautiful car that had no engine in it.”
Despite King’s objections, Kubrick’s The Shining is every bit the “masterpiece of modern horror” that its tagline espouses it to be. The film is certainly open to an internal interpretation. Each character views the ghosts they see in a unique way. Wendy, the “certified ghost story and horror film addict,” sees mostly old-fashioned gothic horrors like cobwebbed skeletons. Danny sees dead children and old witchlike women that he might find in fairy tales. Jack sees his own dark desires for sexual fulfillment, personal fame, and the drink — the rug pulled out from under him in all cases. The Shining is to horror films what 2001 is to science fiction: a singular vision that eschews every trope of the genre to make something completely unique. Kubrick was not a fan of either genre, but in making these films, he left an undeniable impression on both.
Garris (and King)
As early as 1981, King began discussing the desire to create his own film version of The Shining. In the late ’70s, he had written a screenplay based on his novel, but it was jettisoned when Kubrick took over the project. His dissatisfaction with the film led him to pursue making the film once again. Early on, King even suggested directing the film himself, but his experiences on his one directorial feature Maximum Overdrive (1986) discouraged him from ever stepping behind the camera again.
After seeing the made-for-Showtime film Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), King handpicked the film’s director Mick Garris to direct his adaptation of The Shining. The two worked together successfully on Sleepwalkers (1992) and the mini-series The Stand (1994), the latter ended up being a big hit for the ABC network, and the two got along famously. To this day, Garris has made more film adaptations of King’s work for theaters and television than any other filmmaker. King even expressed that he preferred Garris to direct The Shining over the network’s choice Brian DePalma. The huge success of The Stand opened the door for King to finally see a filmed version of his vision in 1997 — the twentieth anniversary of the novel’s publication.
The ABC film is very much the novel with few exceptions. One of those happens to be the bar scene. It is moved very late into the film and combined with another scene. It becomes not only the first taste of the forbidden fruit offered by the Overlook devils but the impetus for Jack to begin his bloodthirsty rampage.
This version of The Shining was filmed where it all began: the Stanley Hotel. Though it had undergone some changes in the twenty years since King’s original stay, both he and Garris found the place to have a magical feeling. The film was a reasonable success when it aired but would always live in the shadow of Kubrick’s film. Despite a very strong cast featuring Steven Weber, Rebecca De Mornay, Elliot Gould, Pat Hingle, and Sweet Sweetback himself Melvin Van Peebles, it suffers from its television movie production values and some very poor CGI topiary animals that simply do not hold up. Still, King got to share his story on film, and it’s a strong attempt in many ways. But for most fans, the technically flawed television film, though far truer to King’s novel, simply could not compare to the technical perfection and unique storytelling ambiguity of Kubrick’s vision.
Flanagan (The Last Temptation of Dan Torrance)
After decades of history with The Shining, King released a sequel, Doctor Sleep, in 2013. The idea had no doubt been rolling around in his mind for quite some time. While discussing a different novel in a 1996 interview with Linda Morotta of Fangoria magazine, he says, “You get angry enough at somebody, if you’re terrorized enough, you grow a tree of your own rage and then what are you going to do about it? How are you going to get rid of it? How are you going to keep from passing it on to your kids? It’s like Jack Torrance. Jack Torrance dies in The Shining, but I’m sure that somewhere out there in the world now, Danny Torrance is beating the shit out of his own kids.” It’s the germ of a thought that evolved into a remarkable novel that deals with emotional healing, redemption, and, above all, recovery, particularly from alcoholism.
By the time King wrote Doctor Sleep, he had been sober for decades. In his memoir On Writing, he describes his moment of clarity when he had filled a large recycling container with Miller Lite cans in only a couple of days. “Holy shit, I’m an alcoholic, I thought, and there was no dissenting opinion from inside my head — I was, after all, the guy who had written The Shining without even realizing (at least until that night) that I was writing about myself.” But he was convinced that he had to handle the problem himself in silence.
“Yet the part of me that writes the stories, the deep part that knew I was an alcoholic as early as 1975 when I wrote The Shining, wouldn’t accept that. Silence isn’t what that part is about. It began to scream in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters. In late 1985 and early 1986, I wrote Misery (the title quite aptly described my state of mind) …Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided…that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.”
The act of recovery ahead was a long and difficult road, but one filled with the support he had refused earlier. He wrote Doctor Sleep as a man who had “crawled through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side” to quote another of his works. King admits that he is still an addict and always will be. He knows he can never take a drink again under any circumstances. He describes being in a room with people who have half-finished drinks in their hands and wondering why they don’t just finish them and get another one.
This is my main argument for pushing back on the belief that King is precious about his work being adapted to film. He is not. He has barely spoken a word against a number of abysmal adaptations of his works. “Movies are not books and what they do doesn’t bother me,” he told David Sherman of Fangoria. And elsewhere, “I don’t care if they destroy it if they make a terrible movie out of this book, because they can’t destroy the book. The book stands.” His problem with Kubrick’s film is because it is The Shining. Reading interview after interview, it is clear that this book is far more personal than even King was willing to admit for a very long time. He has spoken of his greatest fear being the death of one of his children — he wrote about that too in Pet Sematary. I respectfully disagree. I think his greatest fear was the death of one of his children by his own hand. Particularly while under the influence of some outside forces, be they supernatural or liquid.
It is a miracle that a film version of Doctor Sleep exists at all, and even more as a sequel to Kubrick’s film. King’s book is very much a sequel to his Shining, complete with living Dick Halloran and the Overlook burned to the ground — the final confrontation taking place at a lookout on the grounds where it once stood. He had no intention of allowing the personal sequel to his most personal novel to be corrupted by an auteur with no reverence at all for his work. Enter Mike Flanagan, who had previously written and directed King’s “unfilmable” Gerald’s Game (2017) for Netflix, and the only pitch that could change King’s mind was a pitch that reconciled book and film and redeemed Jack Torrance and the original ending of The Shining from King’s novel.
Flanagan was in a difficult position in adapting Doctor Sleep. The studio very much wanted a sequel to Kubrick’s film, but Flanagan, being a lifelong Stephen King fan, knew the author’s feelings about that film very well. He began working out how to reconcile the two versions of the story into one world while still being a faithful adaptation of the Doctor Sleep novel, knowing he would have to change the ending of that novel to make it happen. He also knew that he would not go forward with his idea without King’s blessing. And it all hinged on an empty glass on a bar…in the Overlook.
Flanagan recounted pitching this idea to King on Mick Garris’s Post Mortem podcast. “What if he [Dan] went to the bar? What if at the bar there’s a glass waiting for him, he’s eight years sober at this point. And there’s a bartender…what if he sits down at the bar with the bartender and what if the bartender is familiar to us?” This scene, that Flanagan knew would draw a great deal of critical fire, was the scene that convinced King to allow Flanagan to go back to the Overlook for the film’s final showdown.
Doctor Sleep begins with young Danny learning how to deal with the ghosts of his traumatic experiences as well as the literal ghosts of the Overlook that have escaped the bonds of the grounds and have begun to seek him out. He learns from the spirit of Dick Halloran how to lock them away deep in his mind where they cannot escape. Unfortunately, some kinds of ghosts simply cannot be contained. He has become afraid of his power and turns to the bottle just as his father had before him, but for Dan, it is to hide his “shine” away. We meet him again on the day he hits rock bottom — stealing money from a woman that he picked up in a bar the night before and leaving her infant child in his saggy diaper seated next to her. His shine soon tells him that both mother and child are dead, and he is to blame.
Dan attempts to escape by heading to yet another town in a long line of towns where he meets the people who will help him on his long journey of recovery, including Billy Freeman and Dr. John. In his new location, he takes a job in a hospice where the dying patients find comfort with him as he uses his shine to guide them from this world to the next, earning the nickname “Doctor Sleep.” He also moves into a loft apartment with a large blackboard wall and soon discovers that a young girl, Abra, who shines even brighter than Dan did as a child, is communicating with him across an unknown expanse. Abra is also the one that makes Dan aware of the film’s villains, The True Knot, and their leader, Rose the Hat.
The True Knot are addicts too — an evil mirror image of Dan, Billy Freeman, and Dr. John, all alcoholics fighting to free themselves from their vices, while Rose and her followers embrace them. They are old, even ancient, feeding off the young, sucking out their very essence for their own gain, torturing them because fear and pain purify “steam,” their word for the lifeforce of those who shine. Steam brings them an incredibly long life, youth, and healing of ailments and injuries. They fear death and feed their addiction to avoid it. They dull their pain by inflicting it on others. They are supernatural addicts — the evil essence of the Overlook — which hungers after and feeds upon the shine, personified. They know their addiction causes great suffering; they simply do not care.
As the film draws near its conclusion, Dan takes on a role that is the antithesis to Rose the Hat and his father Jack. Where Rose is the devil and Jack is the fallen Adam, Dan is positioned to be a victorious Christ facing temptation, trial, self-sacrifice, and torment on his way to becoming the film’s ultimate redeemer. After a mission to destroy The True Knot kills Billy, Dan’s greatest friend, he returns to Abra’s home to find her father murdered and Abra kidnapped by Crow Daddy, Rose the Hat’s chief lieutenant. There, waiting on the counter is a bottle of bourbon.
Like the Biblical Christ, Dan faces three temptations from devils in various forms. The three that he faces mirrors those that the devil offers Jesus in the desert: to satiate his hunger, to prove his worthiness, and to spread his message to the world by joining him. In his first test, Dan takes the bottle of bourbon back to his apartment and paces the room, calling out to Abra and Tony, his childhood name for his shine. He uncorks the bottle and holds it to his lips, desiring more than anything to satiate his eight-year thirst. He is millimeters from tossing away more than just those eight years of sobriety before throwing the bottle to the floor, smashing it into oblivion.
The third temptation comes from Rose herself, the most literal devil of this story. “I can make you an offer, an offer I rarely make,” she says. “You could live a long, long time, live well too. Indulge yourself. No consequences, no hangovers. Eat well. Live long.” All he needs to do is join her, make a pact, worship this devil. As Satan does in the Biblical story, she even alludes to scripture, twisting it to her own devices, “such a gifted boy, hiding his light under a bushel for so long.” Again, Dan refuses to give in to the temptation, setting himself up for his final Christlike act.
But the second temptation is why we are here. This is the great scene of the film that takes it from an excellent adaptation of a good book to something transcendent. Dan walks into the Overlook to “wake it up” knowing that Rose will find it irresistible. He makes his way through the dark halls, and the lights come on. He starts the boiler before wandering up to the ballroom and the bar that was the site of his father’s downfall. As he enters, he finds the empty glass sitting on the bar that has been waiting for him for years. He sits on the same stool his father sat all those years before and is greeted by a voice he knows but is not surprised to hear. The very familiar-looking bartender pours some Jack Daniels — Jack Torrance’s brand — into the glass. Just as Jack came to this bar with haunting memories, Dan comes with the trauma of his father trying to kill him, the death of his mother, and the ghost of the woman and her baby that he left for dead but still has never told anyone about. The bartender, the hotel’s version of Dan’s dead father, offers him a drink to dull that pain.
“Medicine,” the bartender says, “Medicine is what it is. Bonafide cure-all: depression, stress, remorse, failure — wipes it all away. The mind is a blackboard. And this is the eraser.” The bartender drinks the shot down and pours another before continuing and revealing his true nature.
“A man tries. He provides. But he’s surrounded by mouths that eat and scream and cry and nag. So, he asks for one thing, just one thing for him. To warm him up. To take the sting out of those days of the mouths eating and eating and eating everything he makes, everything he has. And that family — a wife, a kid, those mouths eat time. They eat your days on earth. Just gobble them up. It’s enough to make a man sick. And this is the medicine. So tell me, bub, are you going to take your medicine?”
Again, Dan is clearly wanting to taste the amber liquid in that glass that will burn like fire yet numb his pain. By taking a drink and bringing Abra inside, he would be worthy of reconciling with his father and live on with him in the Overlook. But the temptation means losing eight years and so much more. In this moment, his very humanity is on the line. But where his father failed, tasted the fruit, and gave himself over to the Overlook’s lies, Dan refuses and keeps his sorrows, but also his soul.
The Shining and Doctor Sleep are two sides of the same AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) token: trauma and healing, addiction and recovery, fall and redemption. The final sequence of Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is essentially a filmed version of King’s novel The Shining in the world that Kubrick built; it redeems both Jack and Dan Torrance along the way. Dan essentially becomes Jack of the original novel — possessed by the Overlook and goes after a powerful child, in this case, Abra. But as happens in The Shining novel, he fights against it and makes his way to the boiler room. It is quite literally the story of Dan Torrance as redeemed and redeemer. He is finally and fully cleansed from his own sins through fire and sacrifice. As the boiler overloads, Dan watches the fire spread, knowing the agony that lies ahead, but in his final moments, his mother appears to comfort him as the Overlook burns around him. Like Christ on the cross, he gives his life to save Abra and untold hundreds, even thousands of those who shine and will shine, from the devils that would seek to destroy them.
The film also redeems and reconciles the disparate worlds of King and Kubrick. “Mike’s movie does two things: it’s a fine adaptation of Doctor Sleep, but it’s also a terrific sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. It could have been baggage, but instead, it’s a dividend. It enriches…for me, it was great to go back to the Overlook,” said King in a discussion of Doctor Sleep in 2019. It seems that the forty years he spent dissatisfied with Kubrick’s film paid off. The two films are an excellent pairing. The Shining is the fall, Doctor Sleep the redemption. The Shining is a cold, cruel masterpiece while Doctor Sleep brings heart and humanity to that icy world. Without King’s novel, we would not have Kubrick’s film, but without Kubrick’s film, we might have King’s novel Doctor Sleep, but for sure we would not have Flanagan’s film. Though I like it very much, I do not think that the Doctor Sleep novel is a masterpiece. Flanagan’s film, especially in its extended director’s cut form, might be. That is a matter that time will tell.
There is a lovely epilogue to Dan and Abra’s story in the movie. Earlier in the film, Dan tells Abra to do “anything — almost anything” to suppress her shine because he is afraid for her and himself. He hid and suppressed his shine for so long that he lost a key part of who he was along the way. After the fire, Abra is speaking to Dan in her room. He admits that it was bad advice. Instead, in this beautiful scene of resurrection and passing on what he has learned, just as Dick Halloran did for him all those years before, Dan says to her, “Shine on, Abra Stone” just before her mother comes to ask who she’s talking to. We see that Dan is in fact gone, and she was speaking to his departed spirit.
Shine on. Be bold. Share what you know. Be unafraid to tell the world. That is the heart of this story. To live fully, to love completely, and to use all the gifts that you have been given. To shine on.
A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King. Directed by Laurent Bauzereau. Turner Classic Movies. 2011
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From Shining to Sleep. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. 2019
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King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner, A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York, NY. 2000
King, Stephen. “The Playboy Interview.” Interview by Eric Norden. Playboy Magazine. June, 1983
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Underwood, Tim and Miller, Chuck, Editors. Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King. Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. New York, NY. 1989
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